White House Rethinks Its Proposed College Rating System

The U.S. Department of Education is backtracking on its plan to develop a college-rating system, saying instead that it will unveil a more consumer-driven website later this summer to provide information to help prospective students make informed decisions about where to attend college.

“Through our research and our conversations with the field, we have found that the needs of students are very diverse, and the criteria they use to choose a college vary widely,” said Deputy Under Secretary of Education Jamienne Studley in a blog post announcing the updated proposal.

When the plan for the system was first announced in August 2013, President Barack Obama said the ratings would be based on factors such as access, affordability, and outcomes — more specifically, graduation and transfer rates, graduate earnings, and student loan debt. Obama also said he intended to ask Congress to pass legislation that would use the rating system to dole out federal financial aid, a proposal that was widely unpopular.

Opponents of the rating system said the proposed metrics for ranking the more than 5,000 colleges were unfair and incomplete and thus should not be used to reward or punish institutions. They worried, for example, that colleges admitting more low-income students would be punished for reporting low graduation rates, as these students often struggle to graduate.

According to the White House, the government provides $150 million a year in federal student aid, which is currently dispersed based on enrollment figures, not graduation rates. The rating system was intended to lessen the financial burden for students by providing financial incentives to schools for strong educational and career outcomes of students.

The Obama administration’s initial proposal for how it would rank colleges has been open for public comment, and the Department of Education has published revised drafts on a number of occasions. A revision in December said schools would be categorized as high-performing, low-performing, or in the middle. Then in February, Under Secretary of Education Ted Mitchell said that the system was not intended to be punitive. Rather, it would “shine a spotlight on the highest-performing institutions,” he said.

This newly proposed system will be what The Chronicle of Higher Education calls “a rating system without any ratings” and will include more data than was previously being compiled to rate institutions. The department is still deciding what data will be included in the system, but the information will allow prospective students and parents to compare costs and outcomes of different colleges.

Mitchell told The Chronicle, “We’re not giving up on accountability at all.” Instead, he said, the website “will become a form of public accountability.”

“This is the exact opposite of a collapse,” Mitchell said. “This is a sprint forward.”